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Diversity Visa Program Fixes that Should Satisfy Republicans and Democrats

Summary:
Legalizing the DREAMers, building the wall, boosting border security, and reforming the diversity immigrant visa program are the components of a successful legislative deal to reopen the federal government.  Reforming the diversity visa presents some unique challenges because Congress does not want to cut the number of green cards, but many Democrats–especially members of the Black and Hispanic Congressional Caucuses–worry that any substantial change to the program would diminish the number of immigrants from the nations that are favored under the current system.  Fortunately, there is a policy solution that should satisfy both sides: convert the diversity visa into a merit-based system that still favors immigrants from the regions of the world that qualify for the diversity visa.

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Legalizing the DREAMers, building the wall, boosting border security, and reforming the diversity immigrant visa program are the components of a successful legislative deal to reopen the federal government.  Reforming the diversity visa presents some unique challenges because Congress does not want to cut the number of green cards, but many Democrats–especially members of the Black and Hispanic Congressional Caucuses–worry that any substantial change to the program would diminish the number of immigrants from the nations that are favored under the current system. 

Fortunately, there is a policy solution that should satisfy both sides: convert the diversity visa into a merit-based system that still favors immigrants from the regions of the world that qualify for the diversity visa.

Before explaining this reform idea and how it would satisfy both political parties, some background on the diversity immigrant visa program is necessary.  This immigration category allocates 50,000 green cards annually to foreign nationals, distributed by lottery. These green cards go only to applicants from low-admission countries that sent fewer than 50,000 immigrants to the United States in the last five yearsLottery winners must have at least a high school education or demonstrate two years of work experience within the past five years in an occupation that requires at least two years of training or experience.  Applicants must also pass the required health, crime, and national security checks.  No more than 7 percent of all winners can come from any one country in a given year.

The first portion of this reform idea would make many Republicans happy by canceling the diversity visa program and shifting those 50,000 green cards to a new merit-based green card category that would allocate the visas via a points system.  The assignment of points under this immigration category is up to Congress, but copying the system outlined by Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) in the RAISE Act would take a lot of ire out of their opposition.  However, Congress should make some changes to the RAISE Act’s points scheme to prevent absurd outcomes.  The diversity visa requirement that only 7 percent of the new green cards can go to applicants from any one country should also be removed to make it more meritorious.  The green cards under this new category would then be allocated to applicants who get the most points, assuming they are eligible and meet some minimum point threshold.        

The second portion of this reform idea would make many Democrats happy by continuing to allocate these green cards to applicants from low-admission countries as defined under the law currently governing the diversity visa.  By copying the diversity visa’s definition of low-admission countries, only foreign nationals from countries that sent fewer than 50,000 immigrants to the United States in the previous five years would be eligible for the new merit-based green card.  This would guarantee that, at least initially, new immigrants under this merit-based points scheme would come from broadly similar countries as those who qualify for the current diversity immigrant visa program. 

Depending on the actual points system created by Congress, the specific immigrants from these countries would likely be more educated and fluent in English, but their countries of origin would be similar to those under the diversity visa program. 

Canceling the diversity immigrant visa program, transferring its green cards into a new merit-based points category, and only allowing applicants from low-admission countries to apply for those visas should satisfy most Republicans and Democrats who want a middle-ground solution that would reopen the federal government.

Alex Nowrasteh
He is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. His popular publications have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, and elsewhere. His academic publications have appeared in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, the Fletcher Security Review, and Public Choice.

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